June 20, 2011

Just Do It: Why Prototyping Works

The longer you talk about it, the further away success becomes. 

That's a guiding rule for all entrepreneurs and innovators.  It's easy to brain storm an idea, then vet it orally to our coworkers, partners and customers.  But when it's still at the 'theoretical' level, it's hard to gather any kind of useful feedback - or momentum. 

If you have an idea, quickly create a prototype for it, even a rough one that barely resembles your finished product or process.  Tim Koogle, former CEO at Yahoo!, always counseled me to avoid being an "ING" (always thinking about or talking about doing things) and instead be an "ED" (achieved failure, launched an alpha, raised the capital).  

This is true for all ideas, even new ways of doing things at work.  By creating a visual statement of the idea, you can uncover the problems inside it that need to be addressed.  Pixar's Ed Catmull once told me that "every great movie contains thousands of solutions to get from script to screen effectively." You'll also gain a sense of accomplishment as you move from talk to action, setting yourself in DO motion.  Here's a few rules for Fast Prototyping: 

1 - Convert your ideas into discussable objects.  Sketch or use Power Point to illustrate the new process, the service design or the product.  If it's a physical product, create a crude one, using simple ingredients (like cardboard, styrofoam, etc.).  In the brilliant new book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries, author Peter Sims talks about how designer Frank Geary came up with building prototypes this way.  He'd cobble together a small scale tape and paper building and tell his team, "let's look at it for a while, and be irritated by it." 

2 - Don't focus on perfection.  It's OK for your prototype to look rough, even if you are showing it to customers.  They'll be more likely to give you constructive criticism, unlike the nearly-finished product prototypes that scream, "we are heavily invested in doing it this way." The point of prototyping is to identify what you need to change, not sell.  Ed Catmull put it best, "We are looking to fix problems, not prevent errors." 

3 - Show the prototype around to people you trust.  Sure, you need to protect your ideas, but don't let this mindset keep you from getting good advise.  If someone gives you great feedback, and is aligned with your concept, make sure she gets to see 2.0, 3.0 and the Alpha version of the product. 

4 - Don't get discouraged because it's not right.  Separate the innovation's concept (Premise, Fundamental Solution Technology) from the prototypes.  In many cases, you won't even be close on the first try.  I believe this is why most people either don't prototype or share them around prior to getting all the $ required for a blow-out execution.  You are afraid of failure.  

The greatest failure of all is to go to market with an idea that's not ready or right.  At that point, you've sunk money into production, marketing, distribution and operations.  It's hard to change the tires on the bus when it's going 55 or faster - and when you have to do-it-or-die, you'll wish you'd prototyped the daylights out of it long ago. 


Posted at 12:51 PM in Business Effectiveness  |  Permalink  |  Comments (4)  |  TrackBack (0)



I like ANMJ on FB & just subscribed to the email feed! :)


Great post! The thing we all need to understand is that even the greatest leaders or creatives are at a constant evolution, so yes, you must put something out and then improve.

But taking that step also requires humility and throwing away fear.

-Deborah Connolly


Great advice, Tim. Prototyping is an important part of any design process.


This idea worked really well for myself and a group of colleagues who took a conversation between three people at a large event reception, came back to the office, found a group of creative folks and a giant whiteboard. The brainstorming and diagram of a new concept went pretty wild, but it helped us focus on were the most valuable and innovative elements of the project. We debut our new event concept in a few weeks and the final product is different from that initial sketch, but the energy and excitement is still there.

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